Children, Family, travel

Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me PART 5

IMG_3866.JPGSo here’s the last post in the series about vacations that don’t kill me. I thought it would be good to map out the logistics in a logical format with a “bottom line” to show what our vacation looks like to our bank account. As discussed in previous posts, there’s wiggle room in each area that can allow you to squeeze by using less money or add on if you want a some extravagance. Remember we were able to bring some items with us from our pantry so we were able to save a bit on our grocery bill for the week. Also, depending on the deal you can find with your lodging, you can shave some expense here as well…camping, KOA cabins, Groupon, last-minute discounts on condos. There’s deals to be had out there!

So, here goes:

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So, saving $55 every two-week pay period can give you enough funds to take a family of five on a beach vacation for an entire week. It takes some planning, a lot of discipline and cooperation to stick with the budget but it can be done. And with all the planning in place,  you can enjoy the moments a little more because the decision-making has already been done. You know where we are going, you know what’s for dinner and you know how much it’s all gonna cost.

FullSizeRender.jpg-3Not all vacations have to be this big or this long, but any planning and budgeting you can do no matter where you go will lead to a more enjoyable vacation you and your family will remember for years to come!

Now…bring on the summer!!

Children, Family, travel

Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me PART 4

IMG_3943.JPGKids…am I right?

Kids on vacation (and by kids, I generally mean younger kids) are a job to manage during what should be your time to relax and rejuvenate your tired bones from all the adulting you’ve had to do over the past year or so. Some folks’ solution is to leave the kids at home, which I admit sounds nice. But…for those vacations where you’re all together, a little planning helps the childcare chore not seem so…”chore-y”.

Before vacation, start collecting fun things for the kids to do. Whether it’s waiting in the airport, sitting in the car for long periods of time or just in between those moments of awesome fun where you just want to rest for thirty minutes. It’s easy to put the kids in front of electronic devices and I’m not gonna dispense my position on that in this post.

The Rocket Science- The secret here is the fun longevity quotient. and to solve this mathematical enigma, you have to think like your child and that means thinking with the time frame your kid will use when evaluating the funness of the item/ object you have presented him/ her with. On top of that, you also have to consider the mess factor, the sharing likelihood, the jealousy, the impact of risk management/ loss and the damage deposit you have put on the place you’re staying in. So…permanent markers or a “how to make your own working volcano” science kit probably isn’t the way to go in this instance.

Activities- Dot-to-dot books, mazes, coloring books, blank sketch pads/ notebooks, search and find books, car bingo, kid binoculars, Crayola wonder marker sets (they only write on the special paper), library books (consider the potential loss of the book here and judge accordingly), lap pads, neck pillows, barbie dolls, transformers, etch a sketch, pipe cleaners…these are all workable fun things for the kids to play with and occupy themselves with. Check out dollar stores or even your toy box at home. The idea is to keep the activity stuff a surprise for the trip to increase the time they’ll actually be interested in it.

Have the kids pack their own back packs with their things right before- they get a quick sneak peek at the goodies they get to play with once the trip is underway but don’t let them look at anything too long. Consider taking inventory of the kids’ back packs and adding that to your packing list so that you are sure to grab all items when it’s time to pack to go home!

Exercise- Kids are little, their attention span is shorter, the ants in their pants far succeed the amount of ants in a grown up’s pants. Keep that in mind and plan accordingly. For road trips, look for fast food with playgrounds. If you’re picnicking en route, stop at a place where you can let your kids run laps in a safe area. Make a game out of having them hop on one foot from one place to another, see who can jump the furthest…anything that gets them using muscles and not just walking. The muscle usage is important to get that energy out quicker so you get some lasting results in terms of calm and patience from the kids when you stuff them back into the car.

Snacks- Water bottles! The kind where they have to suck liquid out, not just bottles with twist caps. The liquid in a cup or twist top bottle was made to be spilled on a child or the floor so the question isn’t if, it’s when. Sports water bottles…put whatever liquid you want in it, I will not judge here.

For snacks, think of the mess you’ll be cleaning up…because you’ll be cleaning up a mess. I’ll tell you we limit snacks in the car because the kids don’t need to eat all the time and we generally stop enough so that snack time is handled outside the car. But if snack time happens in the car, think about kid capability…choking likelihood of the snack object (because it’s always a treat to hear a kid struggling on a goldfish while you’re speeding down the interstate), what that snack will look like after it’s met a child’s foot smashing it into the floorboard, etc. Our kids love to eat apples and I’m cool with cleaning up an apple core, if needed.

The aftermath- Coming home from vacation can be exhausting. And kids generally aren’t much help in this area. I don’t blame them for not wanting to come home and they are really too small to help with the heavy lifting. Something that I like to do with the kids is show them some of the pictures we took while on vacation so they’ll start reminiscing about the fun they had. They retell their adventures with sparkly eyes and enthusiasm. I liken this to nailing the memory trunk shut so the adventures are securely inside.

So over the course of this little series, it may seem like common sense all the things I listed or spoke on, but this is how we do vacation. I’ll have one final post in this series and it’s the example of a completed vacation to New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Hopefully some of these ideas you find helpful and more importantly, hopefully you have a restful vacation with your young children as a family together.

Until the next post, what is furthest you’ve ever driven with your children in the car and how did that trip go? 


Don’t forget to follow our blog so you don’t miss the next installment of our summer vacation series…”Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me”!


Children, Family, travel

Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me- PART 3

IMG_3845.JPGLet’s talk lists!

In your preparation, you’ll have many lists in your vacation notebook and honestly, organizing your thoughts and ideas into lists goes a long way for a successful vacation. So, lists…you’ll need a list for things to pack, menu list, grocery list, activities list, things to remember to take care of before departure, etc. In this part of the series, let’s get into what some of these lists look like.

Things to pack- I’ve actually made a template in MS Excel called “Vacation Packing List”. It may seem obvious what needs to get packed but something always gets left behind. Always. What I did in creating this template is to make a column for each family member. Then I created rows of items…basically you mentally dress yourself from the undies to the shoes. Here’s our basic list…not completely inclusive and I always write things in at some point, but this helps make sure it all gets packed and blankie doesn’t get left behind!

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Also..this list? Comes with us! Because you have to get all this crap back home, right?!

Menu List: Remember here you have 3 meals to consider times the number of days you’re on vacation. Include travel days, too! Some easy lunch/ dinner meals to consider:

  • Hotdogs and beans and/ or mac & cheese
  • Cheeseburgers and corn on the cob
  • Baked/ BBQ chicken tenders
  • Spaghetti & garlic bread
  • Grilled cheese and tater tots/ crinkle fries
  • Soft tacos and refried beans/ rice
  • Fish sticks and mashed potatoes

Breakfast can be cereal, frozen waffles, yogurt…whatever. It doesn’t need to be extravagant because you’re gonna want to get out of the house and out for your activity.

Grocery List: For this list, think through all meals each day and write down the ingredients you need for each thing. Next, think of any other considerations you need for the week. Swim diapers? ketchup? bottled water? Now, look through your list and see if there’s any part of it you may have on hand and can bring with you. No sense buying a coffee creamer container when you have a giant one at home from which you can pour a portion into a Ziploc bag. Look at your meal list to see if you need any spices and try to pack those if you can so you don’t need to buy them later.

Activity List: With activities, you’re at the mercy of the weather so have options. It’s amazing what kids enjoy and so often we find that the free and low cost stuff is just as exciting to them as an adventure park. We usually don’t tell the kids where we are headed each day so the excitement builds as they try to figure out what we are doing. In this list, we have indoor (rainy day) alternatives, all-day activities, short activities…go for everything. For example, our New Smyrna Beach, Florida vacation has included things like:

  • Ponce Inlet Lighthouse -$8/ adults, $4/ children
  • National Seashore -$5 parking fee all day
  • Fishing -Free
  • Flagler Ave beach- $5 parking fee
  • Brevard Zoo- $20/ adults $15/ children…also includes a water feature- need change of clothes and towels!
  • Boardwalk park- Free
  • Kennedy Space Center $50/ adult $40/ child (yikes! Maybe not this trip!)
  • Blackpoint Wildlife Drive- Free
  • Manatee viewing dock- Free
  • Dolphin cruise- $75 family or less (look for local tourism magazines for discounts)
  • Swimming pool- Free
  • Mini-golf- $25 family or less (look for local tourism magazines for discounts)
  • Bowling- $25 family or less (look for local tourism magazines for discounts)

From your activity list you can determine the time you’ll spend and from there you can figure out what meals you want to serve each day or whether it would be necessary to eat out, etc. Don’t forget AAA, military, or student discounts. If you are a member of your local zoo at home, chances are good those passes are good at the zoo at your vacation destination if they are affiliated with the same association.

Watch out for Part 4 where we’ll talk about the kid factor before, during and after vacation!

Until then, how do you feel after you return home from vacation? Are you rested or frazzled?


Don’t forget to follow our blog so you don’t miss the next installment of our summer vacation series…”Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me”!


Children, Family, travel

Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me- PART 2

FullSizeRender.jpgAs promised, here’s the next installment of our vacation planning that ensures we all end up having a great time.

As the cruise director for the vacation, all responsibilities fall on you. That’s a nice way to ensure the whole week sucks for you if you don’t get everything nailed down ahead of time. In the last post, I talked briefly about many points to consider for vacation. What I didn’t really talk about is where to stay while you’re there.

Let me just advocate a house or condo in place of a hotel. You may say “oh, but the hotel is nice because there’s a pool” or “I like having room service”. But consider this: the cost of most (decent, safe, clean…) hotels is about the same cost as a house. Plus, at the beach there’s a really good chance you can find a house with its own pool (and maybe also a hot tub!). A pool you don’t have to share with anyone else…one that’s accessible right out the patio door.

You don’t have to keep telling the kids to be quiet all the time, lest the family in the room next door hears the shenanigans in your room and complains. The kids get their own rooms, you have a family room, a kitchen and if you play your cards right, a floor plan that puts the master bedroom on the other end of the house! You have a washer and dryer…something that comes in handy when little one has an accident in her pants. Imagine trying to find a laundromat and spending hours washing clothes instead of enjoying your vacation.

Most importantly, you have a kitchen…a source of saved money. This is where you save a ton on breakfast. Milk and cereal…maybe some yogurt. Let me breakdown the savings by meal type for a family of five:

  • Breakfast at a fast-food place is around $30/ day, or about $220 saved for the week
  • Lunch at a fast-food place is around $34/ day, or about $240 saved for the week
  • Lunch at a sit-down place is around $58/ day, or about $406 saved for the week
  • Dinner at a sit-down place is around $70/ day, or about $490 saved for the week

So preparing and sticking to eating at the house/ condo can save around $1,100 for a family of five for the week…that’s $1,100 that will be pooped out of your family a mere 8-12 hours later. You’ll have nothing to show for that except maybe extra pounds and less toilet paper.

Now in place of eating out, you’ll need groceries for the week. Refer back to that vacation notebook and the meal list you made. Write out everything you’ll need. If you want the convenience of no dishes to clean, get paper products and plastic utensils. Include snacks for the week, too. If you’ve got room in your car when you pack, bring stuff you already have in your pantry. In Ziploc bags, bring the sugar, flour, salt, coffee, creamer, laundry packs, etc. No sense buying that stuff when you already have it.

If you’re smart about your list and stick to only what you need for each meal, snack and supplies for the week, you should be able to get your week of groceries for a family of five for about $160- $200. That amounts to about $28.60/ day you’re spending on your whole family…or $1.72 per person per meal. This is the attitude you should have in your vacation planning and execution. This is where you save a ton of money. If you’re really gung-ho, come armed with coupons.

As you choose your house/ condo to rent, remember how much you are saving in food here. That gives you a little extra to put toward the house but you shouldn’t really need to spend too much more. Good deals are out there…you just need to hunt for them. Look for local vacation rental places, inquire about specials, schedule your vacation in the off season (this is a homeschooler’s rule of thumb since we aren’t bound to a school season so I know this is a limited approach for many). For example, go to the beach in the fall instead of the summer. Believe me, it’s still hot in Florida in September…if anything it’s less nasty hot so you’d probably enjoy it more!

As far as renting a house, for comparison’s sake we were able to rent a house recently in the Ft Myers, Florida area and it had a pool with lanai, hot tub and a private dock to a canal where we fished all for $900 for the week- 3 bedrooms/ 2 bath, two-car garage, washer/ dryer, family room, and living room. About $128 per night…like I said, comparable to a hotel.

Imagine how nice it is to not have to schlep your kids’ pool crap to and from a hotel room, or not have to walk in soggy bathing suits through a cold hotel, on an elevator and into the single room all five of you will share.

Like I said…rent a house/ condo. Enjoy the kitchen. Save the money. Be happy and enjoy.

In the next posts, we’ll chat about some details…packing, activities, plan B, etc.

In the meantime, tell me what your biggest struggle is with vacation. Is it the money? The car ride?


Don’t forget to follow our blog so you don’t miss the next installment of our summer vacation series…”Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me”!

Children, Family, travel

Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me- PART 1

DSC_0685Summertime…school’s out, the sun is shining, the air is warm and the itch to go to the beach is real and relentless.

Planning and executing a “successful” vacation anywhere can be daunting but it is possible. The key here is the planning part. So, I’m doing a new summer series that shows you how to do family (with young children) vacations affordably, entertainingly and so organized that you won’t be able to help but have fun along the way.

Today I’m gonna lay out our vacation preparation template.

First and foremost, you need the cash for the vacation. There’s nothing worse than having a vacation that leaves your bank account empty when you return from the vacation. After all, the point of the vacation is to relax, right? There’s no sense in getting all twisted up from insufficient funds notices or maxed out credit cards. That will not do.

What we do every pay period is budget and automatically transfer $50 to our vacation savings account. If the vacation is going to be big, we’ll up that amount accordingly. So as the vacation fund is quietly growing in the background, we know we’ll have a solid funding source come vacation time.

Next comes the planning…and this begins well before vacation time starts. We have three kids and usually travel by car. So we plan. Queue the vacation notebook.

We plan for the kids’ car activity bags and consider the mess. Are the markers washable? Do the crayons melt in the hot car? Are endless goldfish crumbs worth it? Water bottles are better than juice boxes, spill-wise. Will sharing be a problem? If so, get enough for each kid and write their names on everything. Think about slouching, sleeping kids…does their unconscious slouching make for a dangerous situation seat-belt wise? Get neck pillows. Get your brain working like this and start jotting down ideas in your vacation notebook.

Food. We plan for a seven day vacation and depending on where we go, we know there’s a few restaurants we’ll want to hit while we are there. We always try to stay in a house/ condo rather than a hotel because…well, three kids. I am not spending my vacation in the same room with 3 small children. We all need our space, but more on this later. Back to the food. We plan out meals…breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Nothing fancy, no need for Top Chef here. Hotdogs and beans are fine. But write out menus in that vacation notebook…maybe get the kids involved, too. From this, you now have a grocery list…vacation notebook.

Activities. Once you get there, you’ll undoubtedly want to go do things. There’s only so long you can enjoy the location without needing to be entertained. Scope out tourism sites, Google “cheap things to do with kids in _______” and look in the comments section. That’s where the real gold is! The article may be helpful, but nothing beats other parents’ comments on what did and didn’t work for them, what they found, etc.

Look for unusual things, look for rainy day things, look for trails, parks, playgrounds, fishing holes, bowling alley locations, museums, historical landmarks…you get the idea. These are usually less expensive options to amusement parks and the like, plus these places are more likely to be fun for the whole family instead of just the kids. Another list for the vacation notebook.

As you are assembling these lists, you’ll start to see how they tie together. Some of your activities need a picnic lunch, some will go into the dinner hour, so your options for food become a bank of choices you can assign to each activity you plan for the day. Remember the more prep and forethought you put into the trip, the less likely you will be to spend money last-minute.

We tell our kids that vacation is really for Momma and Daddy to rest. We still plan for the kids, but we try to remember to allot ourselves time and opportunities to relax and have a good time otherwise vacation is basically the same crap in a different toilet, if I can be so elegant.

Over the next bit, I’ll spell out the components of our vacations, budget, and give an example success story or two so you can see how we pull off a vacation for 5 very economically, while having a great time together as a family.

Update: Check out Part 2 here!!

In the meantime, I would love to hear of your favorite places to vacation. Where do you keep going back to?

Don’t forget to follow our blog so you don’t miss the next installment of our summer vacation series…”Life’s a beach…vacations that don’t kill me”!



Personal Finance

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Remember Aesop’s fables? The one about the ant and the grasshopper is so important as we navigate through adult life. It’s such a valuable lesson that many people miss even after experiencing the repercussions of being “the grasshopper”. Long ago when we first were married, we lived like grasshoppers- we ate out every night, we took and took and took from the ATM (hey, there’s money in the account, why not spend it?!) and we never thought about the next week let alone the next month or year. So often we found ourselves with very few dollars left over for bills or even worse, the dreaded red ink and parentheses for an ending balance. Finally, we realized we have to get this under control quick!

It did take hitting the proverbial “rock bottom” before realizing this and groveling is not an attractive quality for newlyweds in the eyes of their parents! OK, we are big boys and girls- we can do this. Here’s how we did it:

First, we listed out every mandatory expense we had- that’s student loans (even if you aren’t required to make payments yet), credit card debt, utilities, insurance premiums, rent/ mortgage, car payments, taxes (home and car), etc. Next, the hard part…we listed out every discretionary expense we had. Essentially, we looked at a few months of bank statements to notice the horrible truth staring us in the face from that ugly list. We spent way too much money on stupid things, much of which we ended up pooping out a mere twelve or so hours after enjoying that dinner out.

Next, we took our debit cards out of our wallets and moved to cash only. This was necessary to teach us to stop impulse buying. We felt naked without them but it sure did make an immediate difference! We budgeted for groceries, gas for the cars and any money needed for mandatory expenses due that pay period. Funny thing happened…we had food to eat, gas in our cars and enough money to cover our bills. And an added benefit, there was a little money left over to carry into the next pay period!! We were excited to finally see something other than failure in our bank account and that tiny victory sparked the will to continue.

Once we were used to eating at home, limiting our discretionary expenses and anticipating our true cash requirements, we gave ourselves our debit cards back. I set up a budget in Excel that showed us how our current cash situation would impact our budget down the road. This was extremely helpful during the time we began paying off debt. Paying large amounts on debt seemed like a good idea in the moment because it seemed like the cash was there, but we were able to look down the road to see that if we paid a large sum this pay period, we wouldn’t have enough two or three pay periods down the road to make our standard bills. So we adjusted that payment a little and the debt began to diminish, then disappear. More success!!

The other thing we did was open a few savings accounts- two little accounts that were tied to our checking and our main savings account in a completely different bank (online). The two little accounts were for a vacation fund and an auto repair/ emergency fund. They were tied to the checking so we would have instant access when needed. The main savings account takes 3 business days to access so that instant access or temptation to spend it is gone and the money is safe! We have automatic transfers into each account the morning of each pay day and gradually those accounts are growing. Don’t think that $25 a pay check isn’t worth transferring to savings. Even a small amount is something that adds up quickly and it’s reinforcing the discipline to save.

Now, our transition from silly grasshopper to responsible ant has taken some time to achieve. It didn’t happen overnight and it’s still a work in progress- there’s always room to get better. Good things don’t just happen, you have to make them happen and you have to work at it all the time. Budgeting isn’t easy and it sometimes makes you look and feel like a party pooper. But at the end of the day, you have electricity in your home, food on your table and money in your savings for when your car breaks down or your water heater leaks all over your basement. I can’t tell you how good it feels to not invade your operating funds (checking account) for an unplanned emergency because you have money set aside for just such an occasion!

So all you grasshoppers out there, get started with a budget!!